By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — City Council members have reached what officials are calling an “historic” agreement to rein in a longstanding Philadelphia problem: how to dispose of tens of thousands of vacant properties and lots.

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After months of negotiations, councilmembers have reached accord on creating what is called a “land bank.”

Currently, vacant properties are handled by any of three different agencies, and because the owners are often tax deadbeats or live outside the city, the red tape can sometimes take years.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez, who spearheaded the plan, says the Philadelphia land bank will trim that process to a maximum of nine months.

“I think that Philadelphia is going to make history by establishing a land bank, and beginning to prepare to have this new tool that will help repurpose tax delinquent, blighted properties,” she said.

Sanchez had been in a tug-of-war with Council president Darrell Clarke, who wanted City Council’s existing vacant-property review committee to remain a part of the new system.

It will remain under the new agreement, but Sanchez believes the process will still move faster.

“We ended with a very good compromise.  I believe that once we establish the policies and timelines, there are simultaneous decisions that could be made to ensure that our goal in keeping this a minimum of nine months could be met,” she tells KYW Newsradio.

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Neighborhood advocates are also pleased.

“Right now, a variety of different city agencies own over 9,000 vacant properties, and it’s very challenging — whether you’re a homeowner, a small business, a nonprofit or for-profit developer, to actually acquire those properties from the city,” says Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.   “So this will streamline the process by putting all those properties in one place, with one set of rules, in a faster process to get them out the door.”

And Council President Clarke denied that the retention of Council oversight will lead to micromanagement by the elected officials:

“No, we’re not in the micromanagement business. We’re into the legislative process, a transparent legislative process, which we will ensure as it relates to the operation of the land bank.”

Today’s Council meetings brought amendments to the legislation that embody the compromise.  A final vote is expected next week — Council’s final scheduled meeting of 2013.



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